In a free local Missouri paper called VOX Magazine, reporter Aaron Channon writes, “The winter air in Columbia is not charged with the taste of salt water off the Mediterranean, and George Clooney will not be spotted sauntering along the sandy shores of Stephens Lake. Despite this—for a few days, at least—Columbia becomes a cultural island awash in a vast sea of Missourah. Such is the effect of the True/False Film Festival.”
Those of us who have been coming to the festival for several years know that this event provides a retreat and a respite from the grind of the circuit, and the daily Sisyphean task of funding, making, finishing and distributing independent films. While we talk incessantly and obsessively about great nonfiction cinema and run from theater to theater to see both already discovered, and undiscovered, gems from around the world, it is the intimacy, coziness and distinct lack of “marketplace” that sets this fest apart from most others. It’s just a pleasure, that’s all.
This year, we did have some superstars—of the documentary world, at least—sauntering down the streets of downtown Columbia: Adam Curtis (It Felt Like a Kiss), Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger (Restrepo), Lixin Fan and Mila Aung Thwin (Last Train Home), Rob Lemkin (Enemies of the People, recipient of the True Life Fund), Laura Poitras (The Oath, fresh from Sundance and Berlin and recipient of the True Vision Award; My Country, My Country was also shown), Leon Gast (Smash His Camera), Lucy Walker (Waste Land), Marshall Curry (Racing Dreams), Sam Green (Utopia in Four Movements).
As well, there were new talents who are making an incredible impact on the scene with their stellar work, and international filmmakers who were visiting the US for the very first time. (And yes, they did say, “Where the hell are we?”) What struck me most profoundly, however, were the travel war stories of just getting to the damned place. I’m not even sure David Wilson and Paul Sturtz realize what an imperative destination this has become for top programmers and funders and producers out of New York, DC, LA, and elsewhere. Some folks had trips that were so delayed by bad winter storms, they didn’t even get there until almost the end of the festival, waited hours at airports and traveled great distances over the prairie to experience at least some of it. And SWAMI, Julia Reichert showed up with pneumonia!
As usual, I saw various and sundry things and my schedule, also as usual, got upended by last-minute choices of films to see (peer pressure), wonderful conversations I didn’t want to end, meeting a filmmaker whose work I admire and gabbing way past the start time of the next show; or just enjoying a meal with friends at one of the generous, local eateries that feed us all so well during our stay. I also got to be a ringleader for the first time this year, intro-ing films and doing post-screening Q&As with Columbia’s great audiences. In this post and, probably one more, I’ll do a rundown of some of the films that impressed me greatly, so here we go.
All the films in the excellent program, to a director, have exceedingly strong, very personal points-of-view. They investigate history, current events, politics, society, religion, the arts, etc., in ways in which something with a wide scope—a story that tells much about us—is writ small, creating an almost uncomfortable intimacy between audience and subject(s). Which brings to mind both Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath’s Enemies of the People, and Laura Poitras’ The Oath. The best thing I’ve read about the first film, fresh from its Sundance premiere, is this from Neil Miller’s Film School Rejects blog: “No one is doing real journalism anymore. This is something that as a movie blogger, I’m told all the time. Many folks in my industry have no ability or interest in doing real journalism (though there are exceptions; don’t get me wrong). So in the small world of blogging about film, that might be mostly true. But if we draw our lens back a bit and take a look at the world, pushing aside the gossip-hounds and the slew of celeb-fucking shows on television, there is a place where real journalism is thriving. It exists in the world of documentary filmmaking. That is where we find more than just real journalists doing life-threatening investigation; we also find truth.” Yes, that’s where we find it.
The Oath (directed by Laura Poitras) — In the case of Poitras, her search for truth with regards to her main subject, Abu Jandal, former bodyguard to Osama bin Laden, and now a cab driver in his native Yemen, is elusive. The cat-and-mouse between filmmaker and subject creates a suspense and tension that is palpable, that goes beyond the idea of engaging head on with a leading jihadist at the forefront of the fundamentalist movement. But Jandal is also going through some profound crises of conscience, both privately and publicly, and he is just an absolutely fascinating man—smart, charismatic, forthright, and tortured. Poitras shoots thrillingly intimate vérité (supported by DP Kirsten Johnson’s gorgeous cinematography of Yemen) and asks respectful, but persistent, questions—about 9/11, about Jandal’s brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, who served time in Guantánamo, about innocent lives lost due to acts of terrorism in the name of Allah. Jandal giveth, and then he taketh, but Poitras and her co-producer and editor, Jonathan Oppenheim, found ways in which to utilize the strengths of her incredible access to this man, creating an “inverse thriller,” as Jason Silverman calls it. It is a tremendously challenging film and Poitras has raised the bar of nonfiction storytelling in a hugely significant way with this second installment of her post-911 film trilogy.
And Everything Is Going Fine (directed by Steven Soderbergh) — Soderbergh has pieced together a loving post-mortem video portrait of performer/writer/actor/philosopher Spalding Gray through live performance footage, several talks with him over the course of his career (with a wacky array of interviewers and venues), and family home movies. It is an exceedingly intimate look at a man who shared just about everything there is to share about the human experience through his intensely personal monologues performed live on a stage with very little in the way of accoutrements—a table, a chair, a microphone, and his notebook. Throughout the film, Soderbergh vigilantly showcases Gray’s rarest trait—to masterfully perform live, while simultaneously experiencing crippling inner turmoil and severe emotional distress, deriving “order from chaos,” and sharing with us all the bottomless absurdity and searing pain of life. I miss his voice so much.
Antoine (directed by Laura Bari) — I adore this film. I saw this at a previous festival last year; you can read my review on this site here.
As Lilith (directed by Eytan Harris) — If I had to pick an undiscovered gem at this year’s festival that impacted me the most, I would have to say that Harris’ film is it. When David Wilson introduced it, he jokingly talked about his partner-in-crime Paul Sturtz’s ability to sniff out a “phony” doc. While watching this film, they were convinced that they were in the hands of a trickster, Wilson describing it as “getting weirder and weirder and weirder.” And then in the course of watching it, “realer and realer and realer.” Okay, not exactly grammatically correct, but you get the picture. This is pure vérité at its best and Eytan’s camera work reminds me of Al Maysles’, the lens connecting filmmaker and subject in such an intimate and trusting way, a viewer experiences a downright sense of privilege to be taken along for the ride. ZAKA is Israel’s emergency “cleanup” service, removing the remains of loved ones and offering comfort and solace to the bereaved. Their main mission (and they will not be deterred) is to supply an Orthodox burial service. In the small, wealthy beach town of Zikhron Yaacov in the north of the country, a teenaged girl has committed suicide, hanging herself from a tree in the front yard of her house directly in front of her mother’s bedroom window. Said mother, who has renamed herself Lilith, has plans to cremate the body. And so begins a battle royal between her and the Orthodox community of ZAKA, along with the secular community in which she resides. Harris becomes an important witness to a woman plagued by her own demons and those of her children, as well as the outright abuse and harassment she experiences from the society around her. It is a mysterious, fascinating and deeply disturbing story (with many instances of macabre humor) told by a director at the top of his craft. One old woman coming out of the theater said to her grown children, “Okay, in ten words, what in the world did we just see?”
GasLand (directed by Josh Fox) — I (and, I think, a lot of us) want to see “social issue documentaries” made more like this one. Fox, a first-time documentary filmmaker coming out of an experimental theatrical background, hits the road from his home in the Catskills/Poconos region of upstate New York and Pennsylvania and goes on a personal quest across the US to expose the damage of the practice of fracking. This method uses a highly toxic chemical combination to assist in the drilling process for “natural” gas, poisoning soil and groundwater supplies. His journalism is impeccable, his presence entertaining and engaging, the cinematography sublime. One filmmaker I spoke with calls it “an art film in the guise of an issue film.” Staggeringly impressive. Mr. Fox, please keep making films; we need more voices and visions like yours. (GasLand won the Special Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance.)
How to Fold a Flag (directed by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein) — I meant to write on this superb film when I saw it at Stranger Than Fiction in New York last fall, fresh off its début at Toronto. The True/False kids are diehard fans of Tucker and Epperlein, and so am I. Tucker and Epperlein, a husband and wife team, have devoted their independent film work to documenting the US invasion of Iraq since its inception six years ago, starting with the excellent Gunner Palace, and have created one of the few deeply emotional and personal cinematic archives of this war due to the close relationships and collaborations they’ve developed with their subjects over the years, in particular, a group of soldiers and their families, all of whom they revisit in this film as they re-adjust to civilian life. They are superb filmmakers—Tucker’s shooting, particularly in this latest piece, is astoundingly strong, resonant, filled with light, beautiful. The title is evocative of a schoolkid’s primer, the type of simple, instruction-based how-to that Americans, especially, still need in order to come to terms with the fact that we are still waging an unfavorable war that’s gone on and on (it was supposed to be over by Christmas of 2003), and a war that’s also now being pretty much ignored by everyone except for those in this country that are still serving and those that are waiting anxiously for those serving to return home. And, of course, there’s the impact on the Iraqis, a lot of whom are still living in devastating and dangerous circumstances every single day. There is still a body count on both sides piling up, even though our attention is now being shuttled over to Afghanistan. What the subjects in How to Fold a Flag offer in abundance, in quite complex ways, are the virtues said to represent each fold as the American Flag is “closed” twelve times at a memorial service for an enlisted man or woman. This giant piece of cloth, pared down to a small triangle one can hold in one’s hands, is then presented to the mother, father, wife, son, daughter, of the dead soldier. These virtues are: liberty, unity, justice, perseverance, hardiness, valor, purity, innocence, sacrifice, honor, independence, truth. If any film deserved a national theatrical run right now, especially due to our Iraq “fatigue,” it would be this one. I hope, at the very least, more festivals will program it.
More in my next installment (which you can now read right here)…
— Pamela Cohn